Offaly renaissance likely to hit brick wall in Tullamore opener
Anxious hurling people in anxious hurling counties have spent the past month pondering the League just played.
It had been suggested, and not without reason, that the competition would be a much more accurate indicator of the respective well-being of combatants, given all the Division 1A and 1B counties begin their Championship campaigns within a week of each other under this new, condensed, game-heavy provincial format.
What we had, however, was a League where, more than ever, the teams involved were adhering to different priorities. Even Brian Cody was left to reflect upon a spring when his new, unfamiliar team finished with a nine-point win in Wexford Park, a six-point victory over Tipperary and the League trophy but wasn't quite sure what it all meant in the grander context.
And nowhere have they been as frantically attempting to decode the League just past as Offaly.
To say they have experienced the worst of times in hurling terms this past decade is to understate the Faithful's plight in the extreme.
Each year for the past five or six, a new 'new low' has been reached.
And then they showed up to Croke Park on the last Saturday of January and at odds of 5/1, pasted Dublin by 13 points, Offaly's first League win at Croke Park since 1991 and their first victory of any kind at HQ since 2005.
Context was necessary, though.
Three of Dublin's starting 15 haven't played since and only six of that line-up have been selected to start against Kilkenny in Parnell Park tomorrow.
But given the famine they had endured, it prompted Offaly 'hurling men' like Michael Duignan to gush openly about the relief and pride of it all.
What's more is that after enduring a couple of pretty nasty defeats to Limerick and Galway, Kevin Martin's team got within two of Kilkenny in the League semi-final.
That it was Martin, symbolic of the storied Offaly teams of the 1990s, who has driven this mini-renaissance - rather than some blow-in - merely added to the tingly sense of local optimism.
But how much progress has been truly made, only these next five hectic weekends can truly tell.
Martin hasn't so much brought in a wave of new tyros as wrung a bit more hurling out of the county's mainstays, although there are a couple of promising additions.
Oisín Kelly provides a quicker, goal-threatening option up front than many of Offaly's brawnier, sweet-striking forwards that have populated the attack this spring.
In goal, Eoghan Cahill has decisively seized the number one jersey and with it, provides a long-range free-taking option from 90-metres plus.
Corner-back Ben Conneely is another useful addition to a defence that it going to be under severe pressure tonight in O'Connor Park.
Galway didn't gain promotion or retain their League title nor did they give the impression that either achievement particularly interested them.
It was a more than adequate spring from a team coming back from a famine-ending All-Ireland win and they arrive here, on the eve of their Liam MacCarthy defence, in rude health.
Both Joe Canning and David Burke have come back to fitness after operations during the off-season and both also have some game time under their belts.
Jack Coyne and Seán Loftus both look decent prospects after impressing during the League, while Jason Flynn had some huge moments, not least in Parnell Park against Dublin.
Physically, Galway are an impressive team also and it's hard to see Offaly winning many of their match-ups.
No doubt, Offaly have improved this year but they'll hit a brick wall tonight.
ODDS: Offaly 12/1, Draw 25/1, Galway 1/33
- Leinster SHC Rd 1 Offaly v Galway (Tullamore, Tonight, 7.0)